Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What pop-culture concepts have you found to be ripe for everyday use?”
A few years ago, my wife and I went on a trip to Peru and Bolivia. It was meant as one last stab at adventure travel before kids—which we knew would soon figure in our future—made that kind of vacation impossible, and we’d planned an ambitious itinerary: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the salt flats of Uyuni. As soon as we landed in Cuzco, though, I was felled by a bout of altitude sickness that made me wonder if we’d have to cancel the whole thing. A few pills and a day of acclimation made me feel stable enough to proceed, but I never got entirely used to it, and before long, I found myself hiking up a hillside in the Lares Valley, my heart jackhammering in my chest like an animal that was trying to escape. To save face, I’d periodically pause on the trail to look around, as if to take in the view, when I was just trying to get my pulse under control. But what got me through it, weirdly, was the thought of Frodo and Samwise slogging their way toward Mount Doom: if a couple of hobbits could do it, then I could climb this hill, too. It was an image to which I clung for the rest of the way, and the fantasy that I was heading toward Mordor sustained me to the top. And later, when I confessed this to my wife, she only smiled and said: “Yeah. I was thinking of the Von Trapp family.”
We relate to pop culture in all kinds of complicated ways, but one of the most curious aspects of that dynamic is how it can motivate us to become slightly better versions of ourselves, even if such exemplars aren’t entirely realistic. (The real Von Trapps didn’t hike over the mountains into Switzerland: they took a train.) Yesterday, Patrick Stewart showed up on Reddit to answer some questions, and if there was one common thread to the comments, it was that Jean-Luc Picard had been a role model, and almost a surrogate father, for many viewers as they were growing up. Just as fairy tales, with their fantasies of power and destiny, allow children to come to terms with their physical vulnerability as they risk a greater engagement with the world, the heroes we admire in books and movies give us an ideal toward which to aspire. As long as we’re aware that complete success is probably unattainable—”We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” as Emerson said—I don’t see anything wrong with this. And such comparisons often cross our minds at the least dignified moments. Whenever I’m struggling to open a package, an image flits through my mind of Daniel Craig as James Bond, and I think to myself: “Bond wouldn’t have trouble opening a bag of pretzels, would he?” It doesn’t make what I’m doing any less annoying, but it usually inspires me to do something marginally more decisive, like getting a pair of scissors.
Pop culture can also provide ways of seeing our own lives from a new perspective, often by putting words to concepts and emotions that we couldn’t articulate before. At its highest level, it can take the form of the recognition that many readers feel when encountering an author like Proust or Montaigne: for long stretches, it feels eerily like we’re reading about ourselves. And a show like Seinfeld has added countless terms to our shared vocabulary of ideas, even if it was by accident, with the writers as surprised as anyone else by what struck a nerve. As writer Peter Mehlman says:
Every line was written just to be funny and to further the plot. But, actually, there was one time that I did think that a certain phrase would become popular. And I was completely wrong. In the “Yada Yada” episode, I really thought it was going to be the “antidentite” line that was going to be the big phrase, and it was not. That line went: “If this wasn’t my son’s wedding day, I’d knock your teeth out, you antidentite bastard.” The man who said it was a dentist. And no one remembers that phrase; it’s the “yada yada yada” line that everyone remembers.
Sometimes a free-floating line will just snag onto an existing feeling and crystalize it, and along with Seinfeld, The Simpsons has been responsible for more such epiphanies than any other series. Elsewhere, I’ve compared the repository of Simpsons quotes that we all seem to carry in our heads to the metaphorical language that Picard encountered in “Darmok,” and there’s no question that it influences the way many of us think about ourselves.
Take “Hurricane Neddy,” which first aired during the show’s eighth season. It probably wouldn’t even make it onto a list of my fifty favorite episodes, but there’s one particular line from it that has been rattling around in my brain ever since. After a hurricane destroys Flanders’s house, the neighborhood joins forces to rebuild it, only to do a spectacularly crappy job. It all leads to the following exchange:
Ned: “The floor feels a little gritty here.”
Moe: “Yeah, we ran out of floorboards there, so we painted the dirt. Pretty clever!”
Those last two words, which Moe delivers with a nudge to Ned’s ribs and an air of self-satisfaction, are ones that I’ve never forgotten. At least once a week, I’ll say to myself, in Moe’s voice: “Pretty clever!” The reason, as far as I can pinpoint it, is that I’m working in a field that calls for me to be “clever” on a regular basis, whether it’s solving a narrative problem, coming up with a twist for a short story, or just figuring out a capper for a blog post. Not all of these ideas are equally clever, and many of them fall into the category of what Frederik Pohl calls “monkey tricks.” But Moe’s delivery, which is so delighted with itself, reminds me both of how ridiculous so much of it is and of the necessity of believing otherwise. Sometimes I’m just painting the dirt, but I couldn’t go on if I wasn’t sort of pleased by it. And if I had to sum up my feelings for my life’s work, for better or worse, it would sound a lot like “Pretty clever!”